The set is a tenement building living room and dining room. It is sparsely furnished but clean. In the foreground is the desk of Alfieri, the lawyer. As the scene opens, Louis and Mike, longshoremen, flip coins to pass time. A foghorn blows. Alfieri, a middle-aged man with a good-natured face, enters and sits at his desk.
He speaks to the audience, saying people seem nervous when a lawyer is around; immigrants in particular seem to recall three thousand years of distrust in Sicily. He comments that he seems always to notice the ruin in things. Although born in Italy, he came to Red Hook when he was twenty-five. It is a slum but a civilized one now. His practice puts him in contact with unglamorous people, and he deals mostly with squabbles and petty fights. Every once in a while a case comes around, though, that has the breath of antiquity, seeming like it could have been from the time of Caesar.
As he talks, Eddie Carbone, a forty-something longshoreman, slightly overweight, joins Louis and Mike and tells them goodnight. Alfieri fades into the darkness.
Inside the house Catherine, Eddie’s niece, greets him warmly. He comments on how her hair looks different and she tells him she has exciting news but will wait until her aunt, Beatrice, comes in. Eddie says he likes her hair but that her walk has become “wavy” lately and men are giving her looks. Catherine becomes distressed at his disapproval and Eddie tries to calm her, saying he promised her mother on her deathbed that he’d watch over Catherine. He adds that she is growing older and needs to keep to herself more.
When Beatrice enters, Eddie shares his own news first—Beatrice’s cousins have landed. Beatrice is overjoyed and relieved that they are safe after their journey across the Atlantic. She starts to fret about getting a new tablecloth and food for them. Eddie tells her to calm down and that she better not give them her bed; they can stay with them but she has “too big a heart” (6) and ought to be careful. Beatrice understands and happily clasps her husband, telling Catherine he is an angel. She then says Eddie can eat first and Catherine can share her news.
Eddie asks what is going on and Beatrice informs him Catherine got a job. He is surprised and starts to protest that she needs to finish school. Catherine explains that the principal called her out of class and told her that because she was a top student, they would recommend her for a job as a stenographer, which pays fifty dollars a week; after a year at the job she can take an exam and get a certificate which will allow her to become a secretary and earn even more money.
Eddie asks where the company is located and Catherine replies that it is near the Navy Yard. He says it is not a good neighborhood and there are too many disreputable people there. Beatrice says Catherine has to go to work sometime, and Eddie replies he’d rather have her at a nice law office or something similar.
Beatrice can tell Catherine is starting to get upset, so she sends her to get the food. Turning to Eddie, she tells her husband he needs to think about it; Catherine can care for herself and will be fine. He should get used to her growing up because she is seventeen and he cannot keep setting unrealistic standards for her.
When Catherine returns Eddie gives in. Smiling but with the hint of tears in his eyes, he teases her about looking like a Madonna and says she can go to work. She is overjoyed and embraces him, talking about all the things she will buy for the house. Eddie muses that she will leave them and she promises she will not. He implores her not to trust anyone. Beatrice is skeptical and comments that she is fine and she likes people.
They begin to eat and Eddie says he will bring home some of the coffee recently unloaded. Beatrice shudders and says she hopes there is not a spider in it like last time.
Talk turns to Beatrice’s cousins. They came over illegally, and Catherine wonders if their neighbors will see the two men coming in and out of the house. Eddie says they all have to be careful and that they should “see nothin’” and “know nothin’” (12). He warns Beatrice of the powerful Immigration Bureau; no one can be trusted, and no one can be talked to. He relates a tale of a person they knew snitching on his own uncle and how traumatic it was when the older man was seized and taken away.
Eddie stands and looks at his watch. He speaks of the rain coming tomorrow. Beatrice muses that she hopes her cousins find work. Catherine will be starting work Monday.
Eddie looks at the two women, his eyes lingering powerfully and emotionally on Catherine. He sweetly and sadly says he wishes her the best and that he never thought she’d actually grow up.
When Catherine leaps up the get a cigar for Eddie, Beatrice looks at him oddly. He asks why she is mad but she tells him he is the mad one. Catherine joins Beatrice doing the dishes. Eddie stands alone, looks at his watch, then sits down and smokes.
The version of the play that most people see on stage or read is a revised one. Originally Miller conceived of it in one act, much of it was in verse, and certain aspects of the characters were different (not to mention parts of the end). What is consistent between both versions is the echo of Greek tragedy (more on this in later analyses as well). Alfieri, to whom we are introduced to in these first few pages, functions as a sort of Greek chorus, narrating actions and thoughts and providing a larger context. He is an intermediary between the audience and the characters, and also occupies a, as scholar J. Earen Rast points out, “communal role as an attorney…As an Italian, he operates within the Red Hook community, but unlike the longshoremen, he is educated and relatively wealthy.” He is an insider and an outsider, helping the audience/reader and the characters to and navigate the events of the story.
Although the elements of the narrative may have deep roots, the setting Miller chose is important. It is a working-class neighborhood in mid-century America, an America beset by fears of immigrants and radicals and Communists. Men like Eddie and the other longshoremen make money, but they are not part of the suburban-consumerism boom of the country; they are trying to eke out a living as best they can while the rest of the country grows prosperous. Red Hook is an Italian enclave, filled with people who are relatively new to the country, drawn by hopes of a better life than the impoverished and tumultuous ones they led in Sicily and on the mainland.
Understandably, then, money is a consistent theme in the play and adds a degree of tension to an already-tense situation. Marco wants to make money to take care of his family and becomes frantic and enraged when he realizes that Eddie has endangered that by turning the cousins in to Immigration. Rodolpho wants to make money to buy a motorcycle and feel like he fits in in America. Catherine seeks a job because it will help the family, and does not think that school is the best option for her when she could be making money. Many of Eddie’s complaints about Rodolpho stem from the fact that he is “stealing” from him—that he gave the brothers a bed to sleep on and a roof over their heads and Rodolpho is repaying him by taking Catherine away.
Eddie’s working-class background makes him an Everyman. He lives in a small apartment in a tenement building with his wife and niece, works on the piers, and spends all his time within his neighborhood and his community. Louis, Mike, and Tony are his peers, the people he goes bowling with after an arduous day at work. However, what distinguishes Eddie from his community is his dirty secret—he is in love with his niece, Catherine. This violates social norms and is so taboo that Eddie cannot even admit this to himself. His feelings become clear in the way he looks at her, talks to her, and broods over her news that she has gotten a job which will take her away from the house. He counsels her on her walk and later on her clothes; he warns her about men looking at her while ignoring how inappropriate his own behavior is. He wants to, as Susan C.W. Abbotson writes, “keep her isolated from the rest of the world so that he may have her all to himself”; he “refuses to recognize any implications behind his treatment of Catherine, seeing it as paternal caution rather than sexual jealousy.”
Catherine may not notice Eddie’s true feelings for her, but Beatrice certainly does. She is one of the most tragic figures in the play, trapped in a marriage to a man whom she loves but no longer loves her as he putatively once did. The extent of the fracture in their marriage becomes clear when it is revealed that the two have not even slept with each other for at least three months.